A few months ago, a controversy shook Christian circles when Princeton Seminary rescinded an award it was presenting Timothy Keller because of the conservative (and biblical!) positions he held. The irony, however, was that the award Keller was to receive was the Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness. An award named after a famed Neo-Calvinist theologian and one-time Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Abraham Kuyper.

Casting the Princeton issue aside, it’s helpful to understand the importance of Abraham Kuyper and his theology. Specifically at a time when, whilst simultaneously commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we are being told that Western civilisation is on the brink of moral collapse.

Having witnessed, over the past few decades, the erosion of the Judeo-Christian heritage that has long underpinned the foundations of the West. Combined with the marginalisation of Christianity in the public sphere, with the both the gagging of Christian sentiments and the increasing arrests of street preachers. I cannot help but wonder as to whether there could be a place for a resurgence of Kuyper’s approach to culture, so that “when Christians leave the gathering of their churches on Sunday morning, they […] do so consciously, seeking to apply their Christian faith to their cultural activities.[1]Ashford, B. R. (2015). Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians (p. 52). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

 

But first, who was Abraham Kuyper?

Widely recognised as historian, theologian, philosopher, politician, and professor-educator, Abraham Kuyper was born in Maassluis in the year 1837, the son of a Dutch Reformed pastor, and was later to accompany his family to the town of Leyden.  In 1862, following his father’s footsteps, Kuyper studied and was awarded a Doctorate of Theology from Leyden University.

By the time Kuyper took charge of his first pastoral position in Beesd, the National Church of Holland was sliding away from its Reformed foundation.  McGoldrick writes of this period: “Liberalism appeared in the Netherlands around 1840, when Dutch scholars began to study German philosophy and German Higher Criticism of the Bible.  In an effort to revise traditional beliefs, so as to make Christianity acceptable to the world-view of a scientific age, the Liberals often denied the possibility of miracles and regarded the Christian faith as only the current stage of development in the evolution of religion.”[2]McGoldrick, J. E. (2000). God’s Renaissance Man, The life and work of Abraham Kuyper (P29). Evangelical Press.

Such thinking was apparent even in Kuyper’s own at the time. It was only during his pastoral charge at Beesd when challenged by a peasant woman, named Pietje Baltus, that Kuyper understood that there was a divergence between knowing the Bible, and believing it. “You do not give us the true bread of life.” Pietje chastised Kuyper when he asked as to the reason why she has stopped attending the church service. She was to later explain to Kuyper how her beliefs differed from his, and she did so by presenting him with the historic Reformed confessions, demonstrating how he differed from them. Kuyper was humbled, and made it a point to learn from Pietje and her friends. Later he wrote “I did not set myself against them, and I still thank my God that I made the choice I did.  Their unwavering persistnece has been a blessing for my heart, the rise of the morning star in my life.”[3]Praamsma l. (1985). Let Christ Be King: Reflections on the Life and Times of Abraham Kuyper. Jordan Station, Ont.: Paideia Press, (p49)

These conversations helped establish a real conviction within Kuyper, and not only pulled him out of the liberal tendencies he had evidenced at Leyden, but paved the way for an unsuccessful attempt by Kuyper and others to reform the National Church between 1886 till 1892. Having failed, Kuyper and other conservatives formed the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.[4]McGoldrick, J. E. (2000). God’s Renaissance Man, The life and work of Abraham Kuyper (pp. 36 – 37). Evangelical Press.

Kuyper held pastorates in Utrecht, Amsterdam, and elsewhere while leading the reform movement. Prompted by his interest in the legitimacy of private schools, he became affiliated with and was later the leader of the Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP), which was opposed the ideals which came out of the French revolution and instead believed that it was the Word of God that should be the foundation of all of life. He edited a weekly, De Heraut (The Herald): “for a free church and a free church school in a free land,” as well as a daily party newspaper, De Standaard (The Standard).  By the time the Free University of Amsterdam opened in 1880, Kuyper had established his reputation as the nation’s leading exponent of reformation through journalism, education, and political action.[5]Veltman, P. (1992). “Kuyper, Abraham.” In J. D. Douglas & P. W. Comfort (Eds.), Who’s Who in Christian history (p. 406). Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.

In 1901, Kuyper was appointed Prime Minister after the ARP’s victory in the election.  During this tenure, he encountered stiff resistance at home, through strikes, and abroad, due to his fervent support of the Boers in their struggle against the British in South Africa.  Following the defeat of his government in 1905, he spent his last years leading the ARP as a member of the Upper Chamber and continuing his editorship of De Standaard.[6]Cross, F. L., & Livingstone, E. A. (Eds.). (2005). In The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed. rev., p. 943). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.  Abraham Kuyper entered glory on the 8th November 1920.

 

The Stone Lectures

In 1898, Kuyper was invited to present the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary.  In these lectures, the terms “life system” and “life and world view” were introduced. These were approximations of the German philosophical term Weltanschauung, marking the introduction of the worldview concept to the English-speaking world. A year prior to the Stone Lectures, James Orr, another Reformed theologian, published his own lectures under the title The Christian View of God and the World in Edinburgh.

Between them both, Kuyper and Orr, opened a new approach to theology and apologetics. Instead of defending particular doctrines, as was then custom, the worldview concept meant that Christianity was put forward as a unified whole. Defended on the basis of its internal coherence and the understanding, that the only way to comprehend the world was through what God has said.[7]Bertrand, J. M. (2007). Rethinking worldview: learning to think, live, and speak in this world. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

In his first lecture ‘Calvinism a Life-System’, Kuyper argued that a great war is going on.  On one side is modernism, which stands “in deadly opposition to this Christian element, against the very Christian name, and against its salutiferous influence in every sphere of life.”[8]Kuyper, A. (1899). Calvinism: Six Lectures Delivered in the Theological Seminary at Princeton (pp. 2–3). New York; Chicago; Toronto: Fleming H. Revell Company. If Christianity was to hold its own in the battle, then “it must be understood that we have to take our stand in a life-system of equally comprehensive and far-reaching power.”[9]Kuyper, A. (1899). Calvinism: Six Lectures Delivered in the Theological Seminary at Princeton (p. 4). New York; Chicago; Toronto: Fleming H. Revell Company.  Such a life-system being Calvinism. Which, unlike some “vague conception of Protestantism[10]Kuyper, A. (1899). Calvinism: Six Lectures Delivered in the Theological Seminary at Princeton (p. 15). New York; Chicago; Toronto: Fleming H. Revell Company., can “furnish human society with a different method of existence, and populate the world of the human heart with different ideals and conceptions.[11]Kuyper, A. (1899). Calvinism: Six Lectures Delivered in the Theological Seminary at Princeton (p. 13). New York; Chicago; Toronto: Fleming H. Revell Company.

In the subsequent lectures he gave, Kuyper argued how Reformed theology finds expression in and affects such areas of life as religion, politics, science and art.  In the final lecture, he explored what must be done if Calvinism is to engage modernism effectively.

 

Kuyper’s Impact?

What Kuyper outlined in the Stone Lectures laid the effectual foundation of the Neo-Calvinist movement. It was a comprehensive approach that understood that a Christian was called to operate within a framework which was entirely and utterly Christocentric. As such, it denied any division in a Christian’s life as to what belonged to the Christian and what belonged to God. As Kuyper declared in his inauguration speech of the Free University of Amsterdam:

“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”[12]Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.

Kuyper understood Christianity as a life system that was not only comprehensive, but totally at odds with the cultural activities pursued by those who reject God. As David Naugle notes:

“Regenerate people with a Christian worldview produce a roughly theistic interpretation of science, and non-regenerate people with a non-Christian worldview produce an idolatrous science. While Kuyper carefully nuances his position to avoid absurd conclusions, nonetheless he is clear that the experience of palingenesis [spiritual regeneration], which radically alters the content of human consciousness and reshapes worldview, makes a decisive difference in the way the cosmos is interpreted and science is pursued.”[13]Naugle, D. K. (2002). Worldview: The History of a Concept. (p. 21). William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.

Kuyper’s approach has had far-reaching implications. Just as Paul has written in his letter to the Romans, “… do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” (Romans 12:2), the gospel is transformative to the culture. God created all things good; the Fall corrupted both man and creation, but the redemption of Jesus Christ is complete and, ultimately, all things will be redeemed. The kingdom of God extends to all spheres of life and “grace restores nature,” even though we will have to wait until the Second Coming to see this fully realized.

Christians must not give up on the world, Kuyper argues. We ought not to retreat, but engage — because we know that in this world, Jesus rules as King over all.


 

Translation of  Kuyper’s Stones Lectures into Chinese is currently underway and due to be published by the Reformation Translation Fellowship Press in Taiwan, for distribution in both mainland China and overseas diasporas. You can help support this important project, by visiting Reformation Translation Fellowship Australia at www.rtfa.org.au

References   [ + ]

1.Ashford, B. R. (2015). Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians (p. 52). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
2.McGoldrick, J. E. (2000). God’s Renaissance Man, The life and work of Abraham Kuyper (P29). Evangelical Press.
3.Praamsma l. (1985). Let Christ Be King: Reflections on the Life and Times of Abraham Kuyper. Jordan Station, Ont.: Paideia Press, (p49
4.McGoldrick, J. E. (2000). God’s Renaissance Man, The life and work of Abraham Kuyper (pp. 36 – 37). Evangelical Press.
5.Veltman, P. (1992). “Kuyper, Abraham.” In J. D. Douglas & P. W. Comfort (Eds.), Who’s Who in Christian history (p. 406). Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.
6.Cross, F. L., & Livingstone, E. A. (Eds.). (2005). In The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed. rev., p. 943). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
7.Bertrand, J. M. (2007). Rethinking worldview: learning to think, live, and speak in this world. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.
8.Kuyper, A. (1899). Calvinism: Six Lectures Delivered in the Theological Seminary at Princeton (pp. 2–3). New York; Chicago; Toronto: Fleming H. Revell Company.
9.Kuyper, A. (1899). Calvinism: Six Lectures Delivered in the Theological Seminary at Princeton (p. 4). New York; Chicago; Toronto: Fleming H. Revell Company.
10.Kuyper, A. (1899). Calvinism: Six Lectures Delivered in the Theological Seminary at Princeton (p. 15). New York; Chicago; Toronto: Fleming H. Revell Company.
11.Kuyper, A. (1899). Calvinism: Six Lectures Delivered in the Theological Seminary at Princeton (p. 13). New York; Chicago; Toronto: Fleming H. Revell Company.
12.Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.
13.Naugle, D. K. (2002). Worldview: The History of a Concept. (p. 21). William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.